Not sure if it’s just me. But there seems little hype in Ireland about the 41st Ryder Cup matches at Hazeltine National Golf club next month. May be just my imagination as I’m busy with lessons all day. Suppose it was a bit the same with the Olympic golf also, which all of a sudden last week kicked into action and became interesting. Particularly when Seamus Power made a run up the leaderboard on Sunday reaching the turn in 30 strokes. Only to fade from a chance of the Bronze medal in the last few holes. The Waterford native certainly justifying his selection albeit because the bigger names were no shows. Regardless of the Zika driven thinking of the absentees, Power’s form must be reassuring for a good second half the season in the US.
Perhaps it is the poor form of Rory McIlroy, Graeme McDowell and Shane Lowry that has the Irish Ryder Cup fever below the normal fever pitch. However, the form of Open Championship winner, Henrik Stenson, continued in the Southern hemisphere. Where in the warm Brazilian spring he remained in contention until Justin Rose came to life in the closing stages. That winning instinct less evident all season in which his best was 10th place at The Masters. His Swedish counterpart on the other hand is in the form of his life with that final round of 63 – under pressure from Phil Mickelson – at Royal Troon proving he really is The Iceman. That cold Scandinavian blood will be needed against the USA this year as their team is looking fearsome. With a lot of pride to be reclaimed after the collapse at Gleneagles two years ago. With that home defeat in Medinah no doubt residing in the memory when their Sunday singles matches collapsed one after the other. But in my mind that was the work of Seve Ballesteros who was still sprinkling magic from above for his great friend and Ryder Cup partner, Jose Maria Olazabal.
On that last occasion away from home, the Irish contribution was marked both in the playing squad with the two major winners McIlroy and McDowell playing a vital part. Off the course Paul McGinley and Darren Clarke were the vice captains to Chema Olazabal. With no qualifying points available at the Olympic tournament, the focus now shifts to the next two weeks of The European Tour, firstly at this week’s D+D Real Czech Masters before the year-long qualification race concludes at Made in Denmark the last weekend in August. England’s Matthew Fitzpatrick currently occupies that final automatic qualification spot and hopes to firm up his position as the youngest member in Clarke’s 12-man team. The worry for Clarke must be the form of four-time major winner McIlroy whose battle with the putter needs to be won before he tees off on September 26th. It will also be hard to imagine Captain Clarke not giving McDowell a wildcard either. Who is momentarily distracted as his wife Kristin is expecting their second child over the coming fortnight.
With Shane Lowry’s tumble in form post the US Open it would be hard to justify his wildcard selection. So the Claraman knows it boom or bust over the next two weeks and only a win will earn him passage to Minnesota. But I would venture that Lee Westwood is likely to get that spot – should he fail to get an automatic spot – given the friendship with Darren over the years and their shared stable under Chubby Chandler. As well Westwood has shown streaks of form this year with a joint second finish at Augusta one of those moments. But again the lightning fast Robert Trent Jones greens one imagine could spell trouble for Westwood. However, as the Ryder Cup is about so many other factors in the team sense, Westwood’s eight appearances to date will add valuable balance to a possibly large number of Rookies. With Martin Kaymer the other probability – should logic prevail.
The German two-time major winner was an automatic starter 2014 coming to Medinah with a US Open win only months prior and proved too tough for even Tiger Woods on the Sunday. Three top the finishes on the PGA Tour this season suggest the form could be there and merit inclusion. Personally would loved to have seen Francesco Molinari available but this has not been a good couple of seasons for the Italian. The opposite being the case for Russell Knox with a win last week that nudes him closer to an automatic spot to the European team. With Matthew Fitzpatrick still teetering inside the bubble with two weeks still to go. Although it may be some of the automatic choices such as Andy Sullivan that are cause for concern for similar reasons and a loss of form.
For Danny Willett April was a long time ago in golf terms and it will be interesting to see how as another Rookie he fits into the Ryder Cup format. Which should suit him more than perhaps the Rio Olympics where he finished in a non-descript 37th place. As match play is his game and he should prove value for money and as the current Masters Champion the Americans will fear him. Fellow Englishman Chris Wood maybe the unknown quantity for Davis Love III and a pairing with the one time El Niño, now a Ryder Cup veteran, Sergio Garcia, that could prove a good partnership. Although two Spaniards together would bring Rafa Cabrero-Bello riding shotgun with Garcia that might be hard to beat in fourball and foursomes. One thing for sure, Rose might prove the vocal leader following his Rio gold medal and fill that vacuum left by Ian James Poulter. Who on this occasion will have to fight from the buggy paths and armed only with a walkie talkie as he is a vice captain in Hazeltine alongside Padraig Harrington, Paul Lawrie, Thomas Bjorn and veteran Sam Torrance.
In that sense it is memories of Seve at Valderrama in 1997 where as Captain he was almost playing every stroke around the course with Europe trying to retain the trophy against a very powerful USA team. In the end a draw retained the trophy on the last green and stemmed those automatic American wins that had become so common. With four of those players now in the backroom for the Americans; Davis Love III as captain, Tom Lehman, Jim Furyk and Tiger Woods vice captains. For the European side Darren Clarke was the rookie in Spain, along with Westwood and Bjorn. In those days beating the US felt like a miracle task which is not the way it’s probably seen these days. So without doubt there will a US backlash this time and looking at their team it is very well equipped with Dustin Johnson, Jordan Spieth, Phil Mickelson, Jimmy Walker, Brooks Koepka, Zac Johnson, JB Holmes and Patrick Reed definite starters. On the bubble are names like Brandt Snedeker, Olympic bronze medal winner Matt Kuchar, Bubba Watson, Ricky Fowler, Scott Piercey and Bill Haas. If it were my call Lefty would be dropped from further Ryder Cup duty as his treatment of Captain Tom Watson last time out, in the immediate wake of the defeat to Paul McGinley’s team – was outside the pale.
But If I force myself to be more balanced any mistakes in previous US approaches maybe paid for this year given their changed team selection format that is no longer including players who won two seasons previously. But the break in ranks and discussion of the captaincy on the last day, and the dismissal of one of the game’s greatest players, showed a disappointing side to Mickelson. Sadly, too for me, as he is player I have admired tremendously over the years. No doubt Samuel Ryder would have also been concerned and not unlike Tiger Woods churlish routines in a number of matches, as poor sportsmanship has no place in the game. So the Americans need to remember that spirit more so than perhaps the Europeans on home soil. Otherwise we will have the Brookline Country Club once again, where in 1999 the US record overhaul of the points deficit on the Sunday in Boston was as unsporting and distasteful as you could experience for the European players. Hopefully Mickelson will remember that and ensure his will to win still remains within the Samuel’s spirit of the matches.
So who do I think we will win. Well, can l get back to you on that after I finish my next batch of lessons here in the Spawell….